Baresi: the maestro's voice
Franco Baresi delivers opinions with the same force and authority with which he used to dispossess strikers as one of the greatest defenders of all time. So when the AC Milan legend, who won the Champions League three times, says Barcelona have the edge over Manchester United in this Saturday's final, he's worth listening to.
Baresi's Milan of the late 1980s and early 1990s won Europe's premier competition in 1989, 1990 and 1994 and finished runners-up in 1993 and 1995. He predicts an engrossing occasion at Wembley, but believes Pep Guardiola's Catalans may just shade it.
'The two best teams who've played the best football are in the final,' he told the Sunday Morning Post. 'It will be a great match and a great challenge for both teams, I'm really looking forward to it. It will be a great stage for the likes of [Lionel] Messi at Wembley, and for me Barcelona are slight favourites.'
Having led a team defined by greatness, Baresi is in no doubt that Barca possess it. 'It's an extraordinary team,' he said. 'They've been playing brilliant football for five years. The energy and positive attitude they bring on the pitch is almost contagious to watch.
'It's really hard to say who'll be the key players in the final, there are so many good players on both sides. But [Ryan] Giggs and [Wayne] Rooney for United and Messi and [Andres] Iniesta [for Barca] could be key.'
Baresi was in Hong Kong this week to launch the Serie A club's first soccer schools in the region. Now 51, he hardly looks much older than the force of nature who came back from emergency surgery at the start of the 1994 World Cup to almost single-handedly neutralise Brazil's forwards in the final.
Brazilian striker Romario described that display as 'the most ruthless monitoring that I ever come up against'. Ironically Baresi was one of three players who missed penalties for Italy in the shootout after the 0-0 draw, though Roberto Baggio's ballooned effort will be the one that is forever remembered.
That was one of the few mistakes Baresi made in 20 years as defensive rock and captain for Italy and Milan. As well as silver in 1994, he won World Cup gold in 1982 (though he didn't play any games) and bronze in 1990, one of only six players to have a full set.
For Milan, his seeming omnipresence in a near-impregnable defence and his galloping runs from deep after winning the ball laid the foundation for players such as Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard to dominate Europe.
As well as those three European Cups, Baresi lifted the Serie A trophy six times, two Intercontinental Cups, three European Supercups and four Italian Super Cups. Somehow he also found time to mentor Paolo Maldini into becoming a defender every bit as good as himself; the pair are the only players in Milan's history to have had their shirt numbers retired.
Milan finally ended their title drought this year, with echoes of the 1990s as patched-up veteran Alessandro Nesta and his up-and-coming partner Thiago Silva provided the bedrock on which the league was won. Ahead of today's final Serie A games Milan had conceded 24 goals, 17 fewer than runners-up Inter and 13 fewer than the teams with the next-best defence. No wonder Baresi approves.
'It went really well for us because after seven years without a trophy we finally broke our run of bad luck and won the championship so it's been very satisfying,' said the man who was named Milan's Player of the Century in 1999.
'[Coach Massimiliano] Allegri did a brilliant job, he created a very strong team and signed a lot of good players. He designed a great programme for the team and it worked very well.
'Nesta had some health issues this year, but thanks to Silva the team was stronger, he covered the position very well and reinforced the defence and together they made a great partnership. For the next 10 years Silva could be a very important defender. He has been key for Milan so far and will be in the future.'
Silva joined Nesta, Pippo Inzaghi, Massimo Ambrosini and Mark van Bommel in signing new contracts this week, though veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo was let go.
Having gone out of this season's Champions League to Tottenham Hotspur in the first knockout round, Baresi warns that recruitment is necessary if Milan are to make an impact in the competition.
Midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng, a surprise stand-out this season, will return to Genoa after today's game at Udinese, leaving the clubs to thrash out an agreement to make his loan deal permanent with Inter hovering, and though defender Taye Taiwo has been signed from Marseille, Baresi would like to see further additions.
'We have to improve in order to compete with the best teams in Europe next season. We'll need to buy new players to reach their level. In defence especially we need to strengthen and in centre midfield.'
Baresi will continue to watch with interest in his role as club ambassador. Having coached Milan's under-18s and under-19s, he doesn't rule out a return to the dugout at some point.
And which defenders does one of the greatest ever admire right now? Clue: they'll all be at Wembley this Saturday. 'Barcelona's Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, United's Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are the current greats - they've been the base of their Champions League success. These are the most important defenders in the world at the moment.'
THE DEFENCE RESTS
8 May 1960, Travagliato, Brescia
1977-1997 Milan (719 games 33 goals)
1979-1982 Italy U-21 (10 games 1 goal)
1979-1980 Italy Olympic team (6 games 1 goal)
1982-1994 Italy (81 games 1 goal)
AC Milan: Uefa Champions League 1989, 1990, 1994; Intercontinental Cup 1989, 1990; European Supercup 1989, 1990,1994; Serie A 1979, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996; Serie B: 1981, 1983; Italian Super Cup 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994.
Italy: Fifa World Cup 1982, silver 1994, bronze 1990
Second place, European Footballer of the Year 1989; Serie A player of the year 1990; AC Milan player of the Century 1999; named in Fifa's list of 100 greatest living footballers and named Italian Player of the 20th Century by Italian FA 2004.